Spitzer’s First Test

The long legal battle over the state’s school-funding formula is over. New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, has ruled that the city is entitled to an increase of at least $1.93 billion a year. That’s far less than the $5 billion–plus that education advocates had been expecting. In that sense, the court’s ruling is a disappointment.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that incoming Governor Eliot Spitzer and the State Legislature have the option to exceed the court’s bottom-line figure. In fact, Mr. Spitzer has said he would increase state spending on city schools by at least $4 billion per year. (The state currently pays about $7 billion per year to the city for schools—about 45 percent of the city’s education budget.) It remains to be seen whether the state can afford the kind of increase that candidate Eliot Spitzer advocated; the Republican-controlled State Senate believes Albany cannot. But education advocates have the new Governor on record, and they would be right to hold him to his promise of more generous aid to city schools.

When an advocacy group called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity initiated its lawsuit in the early 1990’s, it hoped the litigation would lead to a sweeping overhaul of the state’s school-funding formula. In the end, the suit failed to achieve that ambitious goal.

But the parents who supported C.F.E. surely can take some consolation in knowing that without their efforts, the state very likely would still be shortchanging the city’s 1.1 million public-school children. Albany is on notice: Public-school parents will not sit by idly while state school aid is unfairly distributed.

The $1.93 billion figure was the minimum increase recommended by a gubernatorial commission that studied the state funding formula, with the help of an analysis by Standard & Poor’s. Previous court decisions had raised that figure to as much as $5.6 billion, but the Court of Appeals, in its majority opinion, was wary about judicial interference in state spending policy, which is the province of the legislative and executive branches.

That caution is well advised, but a lower-court ruling defined the dispute not in terms of good or bad budgets, but as a constitutional issue. The State Constitution guarantees New York students a sound education, and in New York City’s overcrowded, underperforming schools, that constitutional right is violated on a daily basis.

So it is proper and fitting that the court stepped in to protect the rights of New York’s students. If the court’s minimum figure is too low, it will be up to the Governor and the Legislature to devise a better formula. The new Governor already has made his position clear.

Columbia’s $7 Billion Plan: A Win-Win

The presence of a great university does much to burnish a city’s image and its talent pool. For 250 years, Columbia University has been a magnet for thousands of America’s smartest students and professors and has been a crucial cog in New York’s intellectual infrastructure, as graduates fan out and become leaders in government, public policy, banking, the law, arts organizations and, yes, even journalism.

Now, like its fellow Ivy League institutions, Columbia needs to expand to accommodate growth and remain competitive. Toward that end, the university is planning a $7 billion expansion into its surrounding West Harlem neighborhood, with 17 acres of property along the Hudson River earmarked for state-of-the-art science labs and new facilities for the arts and business schools. While the project’s vast scope and ambition have generated some robust local opposition, the end result looks to be a win-win for the university and its neighbors.

For the plans to go forward, Columbia must navigate the local community board and win the blessings of the City Council, the City Planning Commission and the Mayor’s Office. The community board has made its distrust of the project known, and has vowed to oppose the expansion if Columbia pursues the option of trying to seize the land by eminent domain. That tactic—in which the university would ask the state to declare the area “blighted”—is surely not the most agreeable way to proceed, but Columbia president Lee Bollinger is right to keep it on the table. The area is home to about 400 residents, and the university has offered to pay their relocation costs. Commercially, the site is occupied by auto-repair shops, warehouses, meatpacking plants and a bus depot, and almost all of those buildings would be demolished, and their owners compensated, in Columbia’s blueprint. The resulting complex would be completed over 25 years and would include new parks open to the public.

The project is eminently sensible and intelligent. New York’s economy is driven by ideas and information, and universities such as Columbia are vital to the city’s long-term future. The only question is: Why didn’t Columbia pursue this expansion decades ago, when they could have bought the land for peanuts and the city was desperate for new investment in West Harlem?

Albany Comes Clean

Is a bracing gust of honest government sweeping through the befouled political climate of Albany? Well, not quite yet. Yes, the New York State Assembly and Senate announced last week that they would begin to remove the cloak of secrecy from pork-barrel projects. However, they reached that admirable decision only because a State Supreme Court justice demanded it of them. But it’s a start.

Funding for pork-barrel projects is no small matter: $200 million in this year’s budget, for example. And until now, voters have been kept in the dark as to what these so-called “member items” are and which legislators are behind them. And so elected officials have been able to pull a fast one on the people of New York, as they use public funds to win favor with their constituents. As The New York Times recently noted, $50,000 in taxpayer dollars was spent to repair a roof on a hunting club in the district of Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, and a quarter of a million dollars went toward sprucing up a ball field in Long Island Senator Dean Skelo’s district. Or how about $10,000 to the Doll and Toy Museum of New York City, courtesy of Brooklyn Democratic Assemblywoman Joan Millman?

That’s not to say there are not worthy items mixed in with the shady ones. But the new transparency, reinforced by incoming Governor Eliot Spitzer, will throw a huge light on these furtive maneuverings. Much credit goes to New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has been at the forefront of this kind of reform over the last few years, and whose leadership on this issue is clearly a model for Albany to emulate.